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As governor rolls back Covid-19 restrictions, the celebrating comes with caution

As governor rolls back Covid-19 restrictions, the celebrating comes with caution

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Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement that he is rolling back most Covid-19 restrictions had a distinctly celebratory feel – congratulations, thank yous, handshakes, hugs and planned fireworks all around the state Tuesday evening.

"Now we get back to living, and life," Cuomo said.

While Tuesday's announcement came as a welcome message for many, health experts caution that now is not the time to be taking a victory lap, even as they expect the warm summer months to continue to yield positive news on the Covid-19 front.

"I think we’ll be largely OK, but what people can’t take away from this is we’re done; we’ve wiped this off the face of the Earth and it's over," said Dr. Thomas Russo, chief of infectious diseases with the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

Now that 70% of all New York State adults have received at least one dose of the vaccine, Cuomo has ended most restrictions regarding social distancing, capacity limitations, cleaning requirements, health screening and contact tracing protocols that have been in place for the last 15 months.

He pointed out that New York has fully vaccinated a greater percentage of residents than any other large state in the country.

"This is a momentous day," Cuomo said from One World Trade Center. "It's been a long, long road."

So with most capacity and distancing restrictions being lifted, is it safe for vaccinated individuals to have dinner at packed restaurants and work out in crowded gyms?

For the most part, yes, Russo said. Exceptions would be if you have a compromised immune system, are elderly and frail, or are living with someone who is, he added. 

For those who aren't vaccinated, however, now is the time to get your shot, and now is the time for health care providers to maintain the vaccination push, he said. While risks should remain low throughout summer, when most socializing is done outdoors, it'll be a different story as Thanksgiving approaches and everyone starts gathering indoors once again.

Those who have contracted Covid-19 may also be under the false assumption that they are already sufficiently protected, even though their natural immunity may not guard against the many virus variants that have been spreading globally, he said.

"The people who haven’t been vaccinated are still at risk," he said, "and the virus will find them."

Other caveats

Not all of the 10 state regions have reached the 70% vaccination rate, though Western New York stands on the edge of the goal with 69.5% adults vaccinated. Long Island holds the state's highest vaccination rate at 75.3%.

There are caveats to Cuomo's good news:

• The 70% vaccination rate applies only to adults with at least one dose. When looking at the percentage of all New York residents – adults and children – who are fully vaccinated, the percentage drops to 50%. So, half the population is still without full protection from the virus. A vaccine disparity exists in parts of Erie County as well. In seven city and rural Erie County ZIP codes, less than half the population has received even one dose of the vaccine.  

• Covid-19 restrictions will still apply to large-scale event venues, pre-K to 12 schools, public transportation, homeless shelters, correctional facilities, nursing homes and health care settings. In addition, businesses may still implement their own health precautions for their employees and patrons, including requiring masks and 6 feet of social distancing.

• Anyone who is not fully vaccinated is still expected to wear a mask and practice social distancing, in accordance with the guidelines laid out by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Falling cases

Both the state and Erie County have seen a precipitous decline in cases in recent months.

Cuomo said the state went from the highest Covid-19 positivity rate in the country at one point, 48.16%, to now the lowest in the country at 0.40%, citing Johns Hopkins University statistics.

In Erie County last week, the county Health Department reported 113 new cases, the lowest recorded weekly case total since the start of the pandemic. The positive test rate per 100,000 residents also fell sharply, putting the county within striking distance of being designated a "low transmission" community.

The relatively low vaccination levels in some Buffalo ZIP codes, however, has led to a disparity in the percentage of county residents testing positive. Although only 28% of county residents live in the city, Buffalo residents accounted for 56% of new cases last week. That's up from the week before.

On the upside, all ZIP codes in Erie County had 12 or fewer cases last week, and the vast majority had fewer than five.

In his 41-minute speech, Cuomo listed the state's accomplishments during the pandemic, paid tribute to former Gov. Mario Cuomo on his late father's birthday and drew comparisons to New York's recovery from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

"You knock us down, we get back up," he said. "We get back stronger and taller than ever before, because that's who we are. ... We rise as New Yorkers." 

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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News Staff Reporter

Long Island native, University at Buffalo graduate, part of the breaking news and criminal justice team for two years. Hired by The News in 1999, I covered high school sports for 15 years before being named deputy sports editor.

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